Rodney McLean spat out the window and listened to the fitful cough of his old Ford pickup truck as it tried to turn over. “You’re a damn stubborn old mule, you know that?” he said. “Come on, get going, you whore.” He huddled over the steering wheel as if whispering the denigration to the dashboard.
As if in obedience, the motor began to sputter as it climbed to a growl and the truck was running a moment later. Rodney caressed the steering wheel, worn smooth by fifteen years of command by his calloused hands, and threw it in gear with a practiced yank.
He drove southeast out of Ox Crossing toward the larger hamlet of Bridgeton through a blanket of white fog. A light rain, more of a mist, coated his windshield, where three deep cracks had spread from a central crater in the glass, the byproduct of an errant softball at the Ox Crossing diamond. He flipped on the windshield wipers and a remonstrating squeak echoed through the cabin as the wipers cleared the moisture from the glass, leaving behind a single strip of moisture where the rubber had worn to the metal.
The noise roused a German Shepherd that had been asleep in the small seat in the rear of the cab, and it rested its snout on the center console with wide, appraising eyes aimed up at Rodney in the driver’s seat.
“Morning, Ellie.” Rodney said, scratching the top of her head. She flicked her snout a few times at his hand and thanked him with an endearing whine. When he was finished, she vaulted herself up and forward, between the front seats, and landed tactfully on her rear haunches in the passenger seat.
Rodney slowed the truck and reached over to unroll the window and Ellie pushed her head through the opening and hung her tongue out into the wind like a good dog.
When he passed the familiar leaning sign on the township boundary – it welcomed him to Canada’s trail capital – he saw that the fog had lifted considerably in the town. He turned south onto Main Street and drove toward Marv’s Feed and Firearms and watched lights begin to illuminate the storefronts and their owners flip signs in the windows to indicate that they were officially open for business. It was seven o’clock and many of the townsfolk, of which a near majority were baby boomers, had enjoyed their breakfast and first cup of coffee already. They’d be shopping before all of the windows were lighted and all of the signs flipped. Rodney parked in the gravel lot outside of Marv’s and went inside.
A small bell sounded when he entered and he could see fresh mop residue on the tile floor and the unshapely figure of Marv hunched over a table in the workshop at the back of the store. Marv stiffened at the sound of the bell and Rodney could almost see his ears perk up at the noise. At this thought he looked out the window above the counter and saw Ellie shuffling herself back and forth between the front and rear of the cab; he’d need to be quick.
“Rod.” Marv hobbled over to the counter from the workshop and wiped grease from his fat hands with an old rag.
“There’s no sign on the floor, Marv,” Rodney said, pointing to the floor, where the overhead lights reflected off the wet tiles. “Wouldn’t want a guy like me to slip and fall. I could sue you for that, you know.”
“I’ll tell you what I know,” Marv said. “We‘ve got one attorney in this town, and he’s not much of an ambulance chaser.” He was standing behind the counter now. “Besides that, he and I share a bloodline and I happen to know what kind of beer he drinks. Slip if it pleases you.”
Rodney grumbled something and approached the counter. He placed a small slip of paper in front of Marv. “First of the day?” he asked, knowing the answer but respecting the time-honoured way in which his relationship with Marv worked: small talk and little else.
“You’re the first soul I’ve seen this morning,” Marv replied. “Even Christine slept in the guest room last night on account of something or another.”
“Sure.” Rodney said.
“There was a moving truck, too. Came by about ten minutes before you walked in. Didn’t stop, just drove by.” Marv had walked back toward the workshop to where bags of grain were stacked on a skid taller than he was and he lowered five bags and stacked them on the ground. “New owners over at Carson’s place, I guess.” he added.
“Know anything about them?” Rodney asked.
“Nothing certain. Rick says it’s a couple queers. Not sure what they’d be looking for in Bridgeton. No parades around here.” Marv was back behind the counter, and he bent down and pulled five boxes of close-range waterfowl shells from the cabinet and placed them on top. Then, “Kenny! Come get these grain bags into the back of Rod’s truck! I don’t pay you to lurk around the back!”
A teenager with a sickly build and hair tied into a ponytail wandered from a back supply room at the summons, hoisted three of the five bags over his shoulder without a word, and left through a side door to the parking lot.
Rodney slid exact change across the counter. “Guess we’ll find out,” he said.
“Guess we will,” Marv said and rang the transaction up. “Least I won’t be seeing them much. Nothing in my store that a queer would need. And I got more than enough dummy rounds in here to give them a good scare if they try and sell me any interior decorating.” He laughed a phlegmy laugh, all the time looking and sounding like he belonged in a barn somewhere with livestock, and spat on the ground.
When Rodney was back in his truck, he reached into the glove compartment and pulled two Milk-Bone cookies from a Ziploc and placed them on the dashboard.
“If you want ’em, you’d better ask for ’em,” he said to Ellie and patted her head. “And nicely.”
She bayed at the roof and nodded her head.
“Get ’em then,” he said, and she took the two cookies from the dash in one mouthful and crawled to the floorboards to eat as Rodney started the truck on the first try.
Rodney drove back north on Main Street, past the few vehicles that had accumulated in various customer parking spots along the road, and an elderly couple – they were Roy and Mary-Anne Cobb – on the sidewalk. As he passed Whittaker Road, he looked and saw the moving truck parked in front of what had been Carson Hewitt’s house for forty-five years before he had followed his wife to the grave a month earlier. There was no movement outside of the house, but a white Porsche convertible was parked on the driveway and he thought that, probably, Marv had heard correctly about who had moved in.
Rodney shook his head and continued on down the road, the unobstructed morning sun peeking over the horizon behind him.
* * *
Rodney McLean sat at a familiar stool, on Friday the following week, in Bridgeton’s only pub, owned by Rick McDonough, and drank Budweiser from a frosty schooner. Marv sat on the stool next to him.
“Father Thomas is losing what’s left of his hair, his head’s spinning so fast” he said and drank one of four shots of rye from the bar top in front of him. “He don’t want those queers anywhere near the church.”
“He’s only just recovered from his heart attack, and we can’t afford to lose him,” Rick McDonough said from behind the bar. “We’ve just got the one ordained deacon, Mitchell Bondurant’s boy, and Mitchell himself says he’s seen the boy driving around with that school teacher Caroline Pederson on more than one occasion.” Rick McDonough was a brute with a shiny head and forearms like Mark McGuire and he drank a bottle of IPA from Nova Scotia and did some minor accounting on a pad of paper in front of him.
“What do you make of ’em, Rod?” Marv asked. Two more of the shots were empty on the bar now.
“Nothing, I guess,” Rodney said. “Ain’t seen them more than twice since they got here.”
Riders on the Storm played through a low buzz from the jukebox in the corner and Rodney scratched at his thick, but tidy, grey beard. “I don’t reckon they have any desire to be near the church anyway. Hank Thomas should worry about protecting that heart of his. Probably he’s got nothing to worry about,” he said.
“I’ve seen them on their porch. They got that fruity furniture Christine’s always trying to get me to put on the deck. And I keep telling her it’s fruity, and she says it’s tasteful or some shit.” Marv had finished the four shots and absently knocked twice on the bar top as he spoke. “Well, I’ll give her a taste of something when I show her just how fruity it is. Hell, I kind of like having the bed to myself.” A phlegmy laugh issued from his throat and he spat in a bucket by his feet.
“You sure you don’t want some of that on your deck? Seems to me that you like talking about it,” Rodney said, concealing a grin behind his beard.
“Fuck you, Rod.” Marv said. He had drank one of the two new shots that Rick had slid in front of him. “That’s fruity furniture, and nothing I can’t build myself if I did want it on the deck, which I don’t.”
Rick lost control over his laughter and, given his immunity to scorn as the man behind the bar, did nothing further to suppress it.
“They been in here yet, Rick?” Rodney asked.
“Nope. Not yet,” he replied. “They walked by the bar a few times. I’ll tell ya, one of ’em can whistle something mighty.” A delinquent grin played on his face. “Marv heard ’em, didn’t yeah Marv? I recall you kind of liked it, now that we’re talking of it.”
“The hell I did.” Marv’s words came upon the heels of Rick’s and the six shot glasses sat empty and glimmering and conspiring on the bar top. “And we ain’t talking of it. You’re talking of it, and you’re sounding fruitier by the minute.” He grumbled and spat into the bucket and slipped off his stool and tottered toward the bathroom.
“You’re testing his will, Rick,” Rodney said. “One of these days he’s gonna come in here with some of his merchandise and blow you away.”
“Sure, maybe. But then he’d turn it on himself when his knocks went unanswered.” Rick laughed and opened another one of the IPA’s.
“Reckon you’ll serve those new ones if they ever come in here? Even they gotta have a drink once in a while, and yours is the only place keeping this town from making something of itself.” Rodney said.
“Yeah, I’ll serve ’em. But they’re gonna pay the Bridgeton tax,” Rick replied.
“Bridgeton tax, eh? That new?”
“Only as they are.”
Rodney drained his schooner and stood to leave.
“Take him with ya, eh?” Rick said and motioned toward the bathrooms.
“No can do,” Rodney said without consideration. “He’s pacing the track tonight and I don’t want no part of that. Let Christine come get him.”
“You’re a son of a bitch, you know that?” Rick said.
“Yeah, I guess I do.” Rodney said as he walked out the door.
* * *
The sun had set when he pulled through the wooden gates and began up the laneway to his house. Rodney owned a three-hundred-acre hobby farm with three horses and a blind pony and a chicken coop. He leased a majority of the land to some of the farmers between Ox Crossing and Bridgeton and used only a small portion of it for himself. It wasn’t the land but the solitude that he had been after when he bought the place.
He was halfway up the laneway when he heard the barking. He knew it unmistakably as Ellie’s but discerned a panic in it that was unusual. When he pulled up to the house and parked, he scanned the property and could hear the barking but could not see Ellie. The noise seemed to come from behind the house. This, too, was unusual. Ellie spent little time behind the house, and only when Rodney was back there for one reason or another. Rodney pulled a Louisville Slugger from under his seat before walking toward the barking.
When he got to the back of the house he looked for something that might have been causing the dog to bark the way she was. He surveyed the back field and found nothing dubious, but when his eyes met Ellie’s he felt the breath vacate his lungs.
She was tied to the tall maple behind the house. She began whimpering when she saw him, her tail between her legs and a timidness in the way she stood. Rodney could smell the yellow spray paint that dripped from her coat.
He cursed into the wind and walked toward the poor sight and untied her from the tree. Her whimpering was ceaseless and she cowered away from his hand at first, but upon first inspection her skin had not seemed to react adversely to the paint.
He brought her inside and she retreated to her bed and buried her head into it, whimpering all the time.
Rodney picked up the phone and called Scott Langley, the veterinarian in Bridgeton. After some time, he was taken to Langley’s voicemail. It indicated that he had gone on vacation and wouldn’t be returning for another week, but that arrangements had been made with Walter Lewis’s veterinary clinic in Carolston, three townships over. He hung up the phone and took Ellie to the truck, where she climbed into the bed instead of the cab, and began driving back to Bridgeton.
He pulled into the parking lot outside of Rick McDonough’s bar and ran inside after he saw that Ellie had coughed up stomach bile into the bed of the truck.
“Christine’s already been in to take him home.” Rick said when he walked in. He was drinking another one of the IPA’s and was alone in the bar.
“Ellie’s been spray-painted,” Rodney said.
“Ellie’s been what?”
“Spray-painted. Someone came to the farm and spray painted her yellow, tied her to a tree. She’s out there getting sick in the back of my truck.”
“Did you call Scott Langley?”
“He’s off on vacation. Only other option is in Carolston.”
“Well,” Rick paused. “Why don’t you take her to Carolston then?”
“Thought I’d bring her here. You had two idiot kids. You telling me they never painted one of your dogs?” Rodney had been referring to Rick’s sons, Josiah and Caleb, who had once gone to church drunk and thrown up, each of them, in the confessional. Rick had not been offended by the assumption being made.
“They shaved ’em bald once, tried to pull ’em in a cart behind one of the quads another time, but never spray-painted,” Rick said. “I think you ought to take her to Carolston, Rod. Especially if she’s getting sick out there.”
“Fucking kids,” Rodney whispered. “Guess I ought to,” he said and left.
Back at the truck, Ellie had begun breathing irregularly and she had coughed up more bile in the bed, and her cries had become wheezy. Rodney pulled her out of the bed and brought an aluminum bowl from the cab and poured from a jug of water until it was full.
“Come on, Ell. Flush it out,” he said to her.
She didn’t drink.
“Ell, get some water into you, and we’ll get you to Carolston. Come on, girl.” He fought to find his voice as he watched the dog struggle on the gravel.
Jesus Christ, he thought. Carolston was thirty kilometres east of Bridgeton and he began to worry that Ellie wouldn’t make it there. He put his hand on the dog’s head, just above the nape, and felt her trembling beneath his palm. His chest heaved as he breathed.
He heard the whistle from behind him. It took him by surprise and he looked for it and saw them walking on the sidewalk toward the parking lot.
“Now there’s a pup who doesn’t care what she looks like,” one of them said.
“She’s…” Rodney cleared his throat. “She’s been spray-painted. And now she’s sick.”
As they approached, Rodney saw that the man who had been talking was tall and he wore glasses with thick frames and a T-shirt with Princeton printed across the chest. “She must’ve ingested some of it licking herself.”
Rodney looked down and saw Ellie licking herself then.
“Hey, quit that, girl. You’re making it worse,” he said.
The tall man with glasses crouched over and patted Ellie on the head and she looked up at him reverently.
“Why don’t you bring her over and I’ll get her cleaned up,” the second man said. He was even taller than the first man and he had brown hair tied neatly in a bun and a smartly trimmed beard. “We’ll get rid of that tummy ache while we’re at it. What do you think of that, girl?” He looked at Ellie, who was now watching him.
“Do you have something for her?” Rodney asked.
“Sure,” the second man said. “I had a private veterinary practice in Vancouver, before we moved here. Bring her over now, and we’ll take care of her.”
* * *
Rodney sat on his back porch, staring aimlessly into the infinitely deep scarlet of the morning. His feet were bare and wet from the dew that had transferred to them when he had been out front checking the mailbox. He drank some coffee from an old mug.
A tired whine came from near his feet and he put his hand on Ellie’s head and scratched. She had retained some of the diffidence from that evening at the new men’s house and had been sleeping more than was typical, but she had recovered her appetite after just two days and was no longer coughing up the bile.
It had all been quite straightforward at Carson Hewitt’s old house, and in the succeeding days, he wondered if he should stop calling it that. The veterinarian, the one with the hair tied back, named Jack Lawrence, had been able to wash the paint from Ellie’s fur in short course.
The other man, named Anthony, whose last name Rodney had forgotten, had offered Rodney a beer and Rodney had declined, but he had thanked him for it and had expressed sincere thanks to the both of them for taking Ellie into their care. Jack had given Rodney a bag of antibiotics for Ellie’s stomach and a schedule for their administration and Rodney had left. The entire visit had taken less than an hour.
Rodney had scarcely seen the two men since, but he found himself thinking about them often. It was never anything about them in particular that he would be thinking of. They would simply and casually pass through his thoughts: there one moment, gone the next. He knew very little about them and he cared little to learn more. But he thought about them often.
He sat down in Rick’s bar later in the afternoon.
“Rod!” Rick said when he had emerged from a small room behind the bar.
“Bud please, Rick. In a schooner.” Rod folded his hands on the bar top while he waited.
“Hair of the dog,” Rick laughed, choking it off abruptly as he realized what he had said. “You seen Marv today?”
“I haven’t,” Rodney said. “Why, what’s he into?”
“He’s been pouting,” Rick said. “Christine’s twisted his arm into setting that furniture on the deck. It’s just like that stuff the queers are always sitting on in Carson’s old yard.” He laid down a coaster and put the schooner on top.
Rodney deferred to the jukebox in the corner, from which George Strait sang about a troubadour.
“He’s got his head screwed on extra tight too ’cause Christine wouldn’t even let him build the stuff.” Rick poured himself a shot of bourbon and threw it back with a practiced flick of his wrist.
“I wouldn’t let him build a fire in a furnace,” Rodney said. “Remember that treehouse he set up at Memorial Park for the kids?”
“That thing was uglier than Christine,” Rick said, laughing still. “Took my boys fifteen minutes to have it turned on its top.”
Rodney drank some more and scratched at the cardboard coaster with his fingernail. He looked at the clock behind the bar, a novelty-sized bottle cap with bent hands that read somewhere around four o’clock, and counted the hours ahead to himself to when he would need to give Ellie her medication. Then they passed through. The two men, Jack and Anthony; not their faces but the construct of what they represented to him passed, slowly, through the quiet space behind his eyes. What it was they represented to him, he couldn’t tell. Maybe he should have taken the beer when it was offered. He thought about this and about why he was thinking about the two of them at all and then they were gone, and he was reading a tin sign hung on the back wall below the clock. It read He who drinks here, drinks to the Blue Jays.
“They’ve still not been in here yet, those two,” Rick said as if he had been hearing Rodney’s thoughts. He knocked the wooden bar top. “But I’ve not seen Marv so wound up as he’s been since those two moved in. Who’d think that two boys who keep so much to themselves could cause such trouble in a town? Got Father Thomas doubling up on his meds, Marv’s one patio umbrella away from eating a bullet, and they got me inventing new taxes. Goes to show, it don’t matter whose business you’re minding, if you’re like they are, you’re apt to give people all kinds of anxieties.” Rick was shaking his head and nervously turning a corkscrew in his hands.
“I ought to get going,” Rodney said, finishing his beer and placing it back on the coaster.
“After the one?” Rick said. “Everything all right with you, Rod? You’ve not been around so much since that stuff with Ellie. She’s okay though, isn’t she?” His tone denoted genuine concern and Rodney didn’t know exactly how to respond at first, taken by surprise as he was by this.
“Yeah, Rick. Things are all right with me. Ell’s been better the last few days. I’m only leaving to go and give her the medicine. I’ll stop by tomorrow, ’round the same time, maybe a little earlier.” Rodney tapped his palm on a table as he moved toward the door, bidding a good-night to Rick, and walked out of the bar and back to his truck.
The sky above Bridgeton, spanning north toward Ox Crossing, was almost a mirror of the morning’s. That morning scarlet was there, but there was more orange with the sun having only made some of its progress toward the horizon, and Rodney’s truck turned over on the first try.
* * *
Ellie had made more progress by the next morning than she had during the previous week. Her breathing seemed to have evened out completely, and the heaving of her ribcage that had punctuated her condition in the past days was gone. Rodney was elated at the development. The bag of antibiotics was nearly empty, and that day would be the final in the schedule for their administration.
Sitting again on the back porch, the burnt coffee in the old mug and only slightly less dew making his feet wet, thoughts of the two men filled his head. Jack and Anthony. He was being tortured by the idea of these men, the inexplicable guilt he now associated with them, and he did not know why. He decided that the only thing that would alleviate this preoccupation he had with them was to reciprocate their good will. Rodney was not a religious man, and he found that he had been able to keep a very simple code for how he ought to live in the absence of more complicated things like religion. More complicated things tended to be vulnerable to contradiction, and Rodney preferred simplicity. He decided that reciprocity was as simple as it got. He would build something for the men. Something they might use.
Early in the evening of the next day, he stood under a lean-to in the back field which housed a table saw and an assortment of scrap and fire wood, among other saws and woodworking implements. He’d built a small bench, large enough for two men to sit on, and finished it with varnish. He’d spent fifteen years as a carpenter before purchasing the land and he jumped at any opportunity to get the saws spinning. The last thing he had built was the Muskoka chair on the back porch, and that had been several months earlier, but he marvelled at the bench in front of him and nodded with satisfaction. Time had not come to pass at the cost of his workmanship.
He backed his truck up to the lean-to and awkwardly managed to get the bench up into the bed. He fastened the load with bungee cord and considered whether he ought to bring the bench into Bridgeton right then or the next morning. He stared at the bench sitting in the truck bed and opted not to waste any time. A minute later, he was driving down the laneway and heading toward Bridgeton.
* * *
Rodney awoke the next morning with a headache that toed the line between something you took Tylenol for and something that was going to bind you to the bed. It had roused him from his sleep with a steady pounding that beat like a bass drum in his head.
The two men, Jack and Anthony, had not been home when he had driven by the house the night before, with the bench in the truck and a curious energy causing his palms to become damp on the steering wheel. When he had returned home, the energy had changed. He thought it was strange that the men had not been there and found it difficult to imagine where they could have been at the hour he had passed by.
When he had returned home, he got into a bottle of rye and ruminated about the whole thing. Where the men had been fleeting whispers in his head before, he fixated on them then, with the lights out save for the lamp over the kitchen table. The dog slept on the bed in the next room over and the bottle in front of him caused his thoughts to gain speed but lose their coherence.
The bottle was on the table when he went into the kitchen, all of a drink left in its bottom, and the clock on the stove flashed eleven thirty. He drank two large glasses of water and went out the front door to the truck. He had felt like it might rain when he pulled in the night before and had covered the bed with a blue tarp, where the water had pooled in a system of reservoirs during the overnight shower. Underneath, the bench was untouched by the rain and he thanked himself quietly for having had the wherewithal.
He drove into town twenty minutes later, with the bench still in the back and the pounding steady in his head. When he drove past Whittaker Road, the driveway in front of Carson Hewitt’s old house was empty still, and he pulled into the lot in front of Rick’s.
His stomach turned over as he walked toward the door, a kind of somatic reaction to the body’s proximity to the stuff that had driven it into a stupor the night before.
Rick was wiping the bar top down with an old rag when Rodney walked in.
“Rod? Marv’s not even been in yet. Sure as hell didn’t expect to see you here before noon.” Rick said.
“You make a good Caesar?” Rodney asked.
“Don’t make Caesars in general,” Rick replied. “But I got pickled green beans and enough hot sauce to blow the stink out of your ass. That ought to count for something.” He pulled a mason jar filled with green beans – all of them floating side by side in the juice like a company of soldiers – and a pepper mill from beneath the bar. Then, “Sounds like they got those boys who sprayed Ellie. It’s that Monaghan kid and his brother and some out-of-towner by the sound of it.”
“What are you talking about?” Rodney said, violently blinking some focus into his gaze.
“The Monaghan boy and the two others were spraying the side of the school last night around suppertime and those two new boys gave ’em an earful. Called the police, but not before Monaghan laid a licking on one of ’em.” Rick had the glass upside down, its rim in a shallow bed of salt and pepper, and was turning it back and forth. A thick crust coated the rim when he placed it upright on the bar and began pouring the drink.
“I don’t understand,” Rodney said. “Tell me what happened.” He was struggling to think through the ache, and he reached over the bar and grabbed a bottle of vodka and a glass and poured a finger into the glass and tossed it back. This quieted the pounding, as with a hammer head wrapped in a towel, but it persisted more quietly behind his eyeballs.
“Those queers. Johnny down at the station says they drove by the school and saw the boys putting yellow spray paint all up and down the walls. Said they pulled up and started telling ’em off, telling ’em they were delinquents, asking ’em if they’d sprayed a German Shepherd a week ago. That’d be Ellie they were asking about, I’d reckon.” Rick dropped two beans into the Caesar, pushed a small plastic cocktail sword through an olive and a small white onion, and laid it over the top of the glass and placed it on a coaster in front of Rodney.
Rodney drank a mouthful and used his hand to prompt Rick to continue.
“That’s about all I know. One of the boys then tackled the one queer to the ground and started whaling on him. The one who didn’t get his ass beat drove the other over to Newhaven hospital. They’re there now, from what I’ve heard.”
“Jesus,” Rodney whispered.
“I guess you’ll wanna go talk to them boys down at the station,” Rick said. He leaned against the counter behind the bar.
“Yeah. Guess I’ll head over there after this,” Rodney said.
“Don’t rough ’em up too much. Those Monaghan boys will get enough of it at home.” Rick smiled morbidly at the thought.
* * *
The police station was a bleak place, even as far as police stations go. The drab wallpaper was yellowed where it met the floorboards and had begun to blacken and peel at the ceiling tiles where water damage had spread ominously from the corners.
Four pitiful desks sat in two rows, quartering the room and marking places where the current occupants’ fathers had themselves sat in uniform twenty years earlier. The four young officers at the desks sat cracking wise about each other’s mothers and appeared not to notice Rodney when he entered through the front doors. Each of them had their firearms sitting out of holsters on the desktops.
Rodney saw the two Monaghan brothers sitting on plastic chairs whose legs were of different lengths against the near wall. He pulled a third seat in front of them and sat down. One officer had begun explaining the boundaries of using a man’s wife as a topic of discussion.
“Where’s the third of you?” Rodney asked. The Monaghan boys were young and dirty and covered in road rash and partially healed cuts.
“His old man came and picked him up,” the older Monaghan said. He had rebellion in his eyes, like his holding the answers to Rodney’s questions put him in a position of power. Rodney recognized this, nearly smelled it on him, among other things, and knew it as the kind of juvenile defiance that disappeared when it was turned upside down and given a good shake.
“That’s fine,” Rodney said. “You boys know who I am?”
“Seen you around,” the older boy said. He had the ugly face of an alcoholic and it sneered at Rodney.
“You’ve seen my dog around with me then,” he said.
“May have. Seen a lot of dogs. Can’t expect me to remember all of ’em.” The older boy had retreated almost unnoticeably into his seat.
“No, no. I guess I can’t,” Rodney said and leaned forward so that his face was inches away from the boys’. “She’s a German Shepherd. A big girl. I want to tell you a story about her.” His voice was a low whisper, like the sound of air entering through a breach in an enclosed space. “One of the farmers who rents my land had a problem with coyotes getting at his cattle last year, so you know what I did? I left my Ellie outside for a night. And do you know what was on my porch in the morning?”
The older boy didn’t answer this time.
“A dead coyote. There was a dead coyote on my porch, and another in the field. And you know where my Ellie was?” The younger boy had begun to cry. “She was sitting outside of the woods on the border of that field. Just sitting there, waiting. Don’t think I’ve seen another coyote within ten acres of my land since then.”
The young boy was blubbering now, and the older one had lost that look of rebellion from before. The officers heard the cries and one of them said, “Rod? What’re you doing here?”
“Just asking the boys if they’ve seen Ellie. She’s gotten away from me again,” Rodney said. He stood up, put the chair back along the wall, and bent down once more to whisper, “I’ll tell you something. I better not see you boys within twenty acres of my land. And I do expect you to remember that.”
Rodney nodded to the officers and left the way he had come.
* * *
The driveway in front of Carson Hewitt’s old house remained empty for many days after Jack and Anthony had had the confrontation with the three boys at the school. Rodney had become well-rehearsed at loading and tying and unloading the bench from the truck bed. He would load it in the morning, drive into town for feed, or food for himself or for Ellie, or for no reason other than to look down Whittaker Road, always without any luck. He would peer down the road, casually, the way a person will look superficially at a yard sale that is in its last thirty minutes, and had become familiar with the knot of disappointment that would tie itself in his stomach, always seeming to be a little tighter each time.
He would see Marv in the mornings at his shop and later on at Rick’s, the way it had always been. Marv had convinced Christine to let him take the deck furniture off to the dump after a nasty storm had come through and done a whole mess of damage to it all. Although, she never did ask him why it was only their furniture that had been victim of the storm, why nobody else was hauling old chairs and benches, bent like pretzels, to the dump. Marv had howled at it later in the evening after he had dropped it all off, said his only oversight in the scheme was not finding a way to drop Christine off with the furniture.
Rick built a patio out front of the bar, placed two tables with umbrellas and eight chairs on it and hiked the price of a pint up by a dollar fifty. He had lost a lot of regulars with that stunt, but the summer was one of maturation for a lot of the teenagers in Bridgeton and the surrounding township, maturation in age alone, and he’d attracted a whole crop of freshly pressed nineteen-year-olds with summer job money and no place better to be than on his patio.
Rodney had been a regular who wasn’t deterred by the price of pints and, to his distinct surprise, hadn’t found himself bothered by the uproarious crowd that had become regulars.
He always spared a glance down Whittaker whenever he passed by, and, after a month’s passing and a new realtor’s sign, he saw the vanity in the pursuit. The two men who had perhaps saved Ellie’s life were gone. They’d left as quickly and as quietly as they’d come, and the town crawled forward, always slightly behind time itself, as if they’d never been there.
Jordan Lewis lives in Toronto, Canada, where he eats, drinks, and collects vinyl, in no particular order. He is also involved in a torrid love affair with his city’s sports teams.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Welcome to Bridgeton”
It’s said that good literature is about the human condition. “Welcome to Bridgeton” is certainly about the human condition.
Writing is also an artistic endeavor, and good art is about attention to detail. On its surface, this is an unassuming story with unassuming characters in an unassuming setting. The story doesn’t open with a bang. In fact, it violates several “rules” of storytelling we may have heard: there’s no real hook at the beginning, and there’s no apparent conflict. We don’t even get a hint of what the story is about until we’re over a dozen paragraphs into it. So why does this story work?
For one, the title helps. It piques the interest because of its simplicity; it makes a promise to the reader. We note how the author Jordan Lewis paints the setting for us: the mood of the gloomy day, the old truck, even the dog. We’re not told any of this. We’re shown it as he paints the setting through the eyes and actions of Rodney McClean.
One of our favorite scenes is the exchange between Rodney and Marv about the wet floor. Not only does it make us smile, but it speaks volumes about the characters and the town. Notice that Rodney is never described. We’re not told what he’s wearing, what he looks like, or how old he is. Why? Because those are not important to the story.
When it’s over, and the painting is complete. As in any good story, subtle changes have happened and lives have been affected. The town and the characters are not quite the same as before. We can sit back and examine that painting more closely and appreciate all the delicate brush strokes that make it up.